Page 9, 13th June 2003

13th June 2003
Page 9
Page 9, 13th June 2003 — THE CATHOLIC HERALD 13 JUNE 2003 COMMENT 9

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Lessons of the Ncube affair: what did 'the bishops' know?

THE AFFAIR of Archbishop Pius Ncube's visit to this country continues to rumble on; and there are still lessons from it that need to be pondered more than they have yet been. One major issue has been the way in which the Church has been perceived by the outside world as evasive, even mendacious. Even more damaging has been the perception of "the bishops" (a collective term whose precise meaning needs in this context to be better understood) as being excessively cautious over the issue of Zimbabwe, unwilling to speak out on the issue themselves, and — even worse — gagging the courageous Archbishop Ncube on various specious grounds. The Cardinal himself has now moved away from the policy of silence (which had become unsustainable after not only the Pope but the previously cautious Zimbabwean bishops issued a courageous and unambiguous Lenten pastoral letter roundly condemning the Mugabe regime).

What "the bishops" attempted to do, however, was worse than any mere gagging: it now emerges that, acting in the name of the bishops, a Cafod official had actually brought about the cancellation of the visit of this embarrassingly forthright prelate, a visit which was reinstated only after the senior Conservative politician Michael Ancram, himself a Catholic, threatened to expose what had been done. Archbishop Ncube told The Catholic Herald that it was Julian Filochowski, of Cafod, who told him of the bishops' gagging order. One question that needs to be asked, however, is this: which of the bishops actually asked him to do this?

The bishop actually responsible for foreign relations is Bishop David Konstant of Leeds who, if anyone, should have made such a request; he, however, denies any such thing: "there was no Press ban", he insists. "It is very straightforward. The article is not true". The article in question, by Peter °borne, had appeared in the The Spectator magazine. Last week, quoting our report of what both Archbishop Ncube and Bishop Konstant had told us, The Spectator asked ironically "wouldn't you like to believe both are telling the truth'?", apparently assuming that Bishop Konstant was lying: this assumption, however, is unlikely in the extreme and we do not for one moment believe it. It is clear that Bishop Konstant did actually believe that there had been no media ban, and that when he told us that he had no idea why the Press had not been told of the visit he was telling the truth. The only explanation can be this: that those who, during the course of this affair, have acted in the name of "the bishops", and with their authority, were simply not keeping "the bishops", even the bishop most closely concerned, properly informed about what they were up to.

This is by no means an isolated example. There is behind the Bishops' Conference a shadowy bureaucracy some of whose members have over the years acquired the habit of acting in the bishops' names in this way. In one instance, this newspaper was given a statement containing quotations from remarks made by a particular bishop as head of one of the various boards and agencies by which the Bishops' Conference does its business. It transpired not only that the bishop concerned had never said the words attrib uted to him, but that they did not even represent his views.

One result of the Ncube affair has been the perception of the secular media that those in authority in the Catholic Church do not necessarily answer questions frankly and honestly. Fr Frank Turner, on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme, said this week that no press conference had been called by the Church authorities for Archbishop Ncube because the dates of the visit coincided with other appointments. But that was not the real reason; and by this time everyone knew it. This evasion made Fr Turner's explanation for the bishops' collective silence on Zimbabwe (a policy presumably decided by him as their "international affairs adviser") seem even feebler than it would otherwise have done: "The Zanu-PF", he said, "likes nothing better than condemnations from the former colonial power". But this is an utterly ludicrous justification: the Catholic Church in this country is not a "colonial power" and has not within living memory been an apologist for colonialism; the reasons given by the Blair government for not speaking out against Mugabe cannot simply be parroted by Church officials, as though they were simply an extension of the New Labour spin machine (nothing, indeed, could more eloquently demonstrate the pure secularism of their thinking in all this).

What we have needed on this issue was a prophetic voice. And whatever "the bishops— reasons for their own silence, they had no moral right to silence Archbishop Ncube. One reason he was given was particularly absurd: that "his role as a mediator for peace" would be compromised if he spoke out here. But that was for him to decide: and it is clear that tactful mediation behind the scenes is not how he sees his role. "I shall not be quiet when my people are suffering — I shall speak", he told a 1,500-strong congregation in Bulawayo last week, with military helicopters flying overhead; "... there is too much fear in the country, fear of the known consequences if we decide to speak out ..." Mugabe's sinister secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, have not silenced this courageous'hero of the faith.

It remains a matter for shame that certain English Church officials, acting in the name of our bishops, achieved for a time what the CIO have failed to do: the silence of a man whose special mission it is to proclaim the truth.

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